From education to employment

The changing face of access – a positive response to 24+ loans

The Access to HE Diploma is one programme that is actually benefitting from the introduction of the new and contentious 24+ Adult Advanced Learner Loan. Figures released last month show that of the 15,725 loan applications in August, 37% (5,812) were for Access to HE courses. It brings the total number of Access loans applied for up to 14,720 — 42% of all 24+ loans.

By comparison, take up of the loan by adults on apprenticeships has been described as ‘dire’ with only 77 applications recorded.

The incentive of the loan waiver to adults on an Access course has proved popular with mature students. Anyone who receives the 24+ loan then goes on to complete a degree course is exempt from repaying it. There is also an indication that young people leaving 6th Form without the required grades are now seeing Access as an alternative to re-taking A levels.

In addition to the loan waiver, the inclusion of the Access to HE Diploma in the grades ABB+ equivalences for university entrance is considered a positive milestone. This constituted long overdue political and public recognition that Access provides a valuable alternative to ‘A’ levels for adults wishing to progress to HE study.

Access is a preparation course, designed for adults 19+ who left school with insufficient formal qualifications to progress to HE. Completed in a year or less, it can be studied full or part time making it a flexible way to develop the knowledge, skills and confidence to go on to higher education. The Diploma is developed to QAA specifications and can only be validated and certificated by QAA approved Access Validating Agencies (AVAs).

OCN London has been offering accredited Access programmes since 1989. Since then the provision has grown at a steady pace and we currently work with 37 providers, mostly FE colleges, offering more than 50 different Diploma titles and over 250 separate programmes. Last year there were over 6,000 learners registered across these programmes and the information we are currently receiving from our centres on enrolments for this year are looking positive, with one college already reporting a bumper year for Access enrolments.

Alongside the increase in demand for Access courses comes the need for increased transparency and comparability between the different courses across the country. The 2013-14 academic year sees the introduction of a new QAA specification for the Diploma which will come into effect from Sept 2014. The new specification will lead to a more standardised structure for all Access to HE Diploma courses delivered across England and Wales. It is anticipated that this will provide clarity and transparency for students, underpinning the sector’s confidence in standards and supporting fair access to HE.

With the squeeze on public funding expected to carry on for another 5 years, and 24+ loans looking set to stay, FE providers would do well to consider compensating for the possibility of a reduced Adult Skills Budget by introducing the Access programme or expanding their current Access offering. This could go some way to offset any reduction in the Adult Skills Budget, and now is the time to start planning for an increased loan facility for 2014.

Access has been around for over 20 years, in 2011-12 there were 28,000 completions and 22,000 students with Diplomas went on to HE in 2012-2013. With the option of a non-repayable loan, new delivery standards and greater acceptance by universities, the new look Access qualification is facing a bright future.

Jacquie Mutter is acting chief executive of OCN London, a national qualification awarding organisation offering support to FE providers planning to start up an Access programme


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